The Deeds camp says that the issue is now a centerpiece of the campaign, one that highlights Bob McDonnell’s true reactionary inclinations.
The McDonnell camp calls it a desperation maneuver, a response to declining poll numbers that contradicts Deeds’ own assertion a few weeks back that social issues have not been at the heart of his campaigns.
The purposes are easy to discern.
Excite the base.
Scare the moderates.
The outcome is trickier to predict.
Look at the issue over the last 20 years.
This was the election in which the impact of the abortion issue had the most positive impact on a Democratic campaign, enabling Doug Wilder to defeat Marshall Coleman by garnering the support of moderate women, especially in NOVA.
But there were a number of special circumstances that made the issue especially salient in 1989.
1. The Supreme Court just made a decision in the Webster case that most observers on the national level believed (wrongly it turned out) was a signal that the Court was preparing to overturn Roe v. Wade. In short, there was a genuine expectation that the Court was in the process of sending abortion back to the states and would enable each state to set its own policies. The Virginia Governor’s race would be the first test of public reaction to this likelihood.
2. Marshall Coleman, the GOP nominee, had taken an extremely strong pro-life position in the primary campaign in order to secure the support of social conservatives in a three way battle against former Senator Paul Trible and Congressman Stan Parris. This was extremely helpful to Coleman in garnering the nomination, but posed a real problem in the general election.
Prior to 1989, Coleman had been relatively pro-choice and there was sentiment that the evolution of his position was more the result of political calculation than a reconsidered moral conviction. (In fact, when he ran for Senate as an independent in 1994 his position re-evolved back into his pre-1989 stance).
In any case, Coleman expressed little interest in actually defending his stance that he was against abortion even in cases of rape and incest, but attempted to insist that it was not an issue on which he would spend much time as Governor. Given the Court’s decision in Webster, this was not a credible position in 1989.
In one gubernatorial debate, Coleman bobbed and weaved for almost an hour as Wilder relentlessly asked him whether he would sign a bill prohibiting all abortions in Virginia if he was sent one by the Assembly.
3. Doug Wilder was masterful in how he framed the issue. Wilder essentially defended abortion on conservative grounds, arguing that it was a question of whether Virginians wanted big government interfering in their private choices. Indeed, some pro-choice groups like NARAL were not at all happy with Wilder’s approach, but it turned out that Wilder had perfect pitch for the Virginia audience.
1993 and 1997
The Democrats tried to replay 1989 in both the Terry and Beyer campaigns, but were unsuccessful against Allen and Gilmore. The immediate threat to Roe v. Wade had passed. The Court had signaled that it was not overturning it and Clinton was in control of Supreme Court appointments for eight years. Moreover, the Republicans learned from 1989 and tweaked their position on abortion to one that was more politically acceptable.
In both campaigns, the Democrats suggested that the Republican candidates were a threat to a woman’s right to choose.
The Republicans countered by noting that the Supreme Court was not going to overturn Roe so that the basic “threat” was off the table, even if the candidates were personally pro-life. What the GOP candidates did propose was a set of “restrictions” on abortion that they described as “reasonable” (some of which had widespread public support)- elimination of “partial birth” abortion, parental consent, 24 hours waiting periods, etc..
In 1997, the Democrats jumped all over Jim Gilmore when he noted in an interview that he supported “spousal notification,” thinking that he made a major blunder, only to discover in a poll that a fairly large number of Virginians did as well and that, in any case, abortion was nowhere near as salient in 1997 than it was in 1989.
In fact, there was a growing sense among political observers that the Democrats’ insistent attacks on the “Religious Right” and the party’s airing of the abortion issue after Roe v. Wade had become settled law might be having the unintended effect of mobilizing social conservatives and signaling the general public that the Democrats just didn’t like religious people.
2001 and 2005
The Democrats shifted tactics considerably. Warner and Kaine de-emphasized abortion in their broad public campaigns while making less visible, narrowly targeted appeals to the relatively small segment of the electorate motivated primarily by pro-choice sentiments.
In 2001, Mark Earley’s long-standing commitment to pro-life causes was central to his capacity to defeat John Hager for the GOP nomination. It may have also been a factor (but not the only one) in pushing some socially moderate business leaders into the Democratic camp. But the Warner-Earley race itself focused far more on bread and butter matters than social issues.
In 2005, the issue was even more muted as neither Tim Kaine nor Jerry Kilgore was interested in highlighting the issue. Kaine emphasized that, as a Catholic, he was personally pro-life though he echoed Wilder in observing that he was politically pro-choice and not believe that it was the government’s obligation to enforce a particular set of religious beliefs. As recently as a few months ago, Kaine angered pro-choice activists in D.C. when, as Governor, he permitted a “”Pro-Life” license plate to be issue in Virginia.
Polls seemed to show that there is an almost evenly divided number of voters on the pro-choice and pro-life side who say that a candidate’s position on abortion is the primary motivator of their vote.
In the last week, Creigh Deeds has returned to the pre-Warner/Kaine Democratic strategy and spotlighted abortion as a central dividing line in the campaign.
It’s certainly not 1989.
Barack Obama is appointing members of the Supreme Court and no one is expecting his nominees to overturn Roe v. Wade.
The polls don’t give much indication that it is an issue at the top of voters’ concerns this year.
The GOP did extensive polling on abortion this summer and it barely registered on the electoral seismograph.
Asked an open ended question about the issue that was most important to them, less than 2% of likely voters said abortion.
When abortion was included on a specific list of 9 or 10 issues, 2% of likely voters named it as their most important concern.
So why abortion now?
Here’s my take.
The Democrats will assert that McDonnell and the entire GOP ticket is out of touch with mainstream Virginians.
Many Democrats believe that the ad Deeds ran in 2005 linking McDonnell with Pat Robertson was extremely effective, especially in NOVA. I have heard Democrats say that “if we only had another day to run the ad, Creigh Deeds would’ve won.”
In essence, abortion is just the beginning of what will be a protracted effort
To raise McDonnell’s negatives
To bring pro-choice moderates currently supporting him back to the Democrats
To label the entire Republican ticket extremist
To reclaim the middle
Polls indicate that McDonnell’s positive/negative ratio at the moment is better than two to one (55 to 26). This is almost stratospheric for a candidate individual in a hotly contested campaign.
The Democrats want to bring him down to earth.
And this time they don’t want to wait too long.
It seems to make sense.
But here’s the challenge for Deeds.
In 2005, both he and McDonnell were unknown commodities.
McDonnell’s now had the advantage of holding statewide office for 4 years.
Deeds still really has to develop a clear statewide identity.
How does a campaign successfully attack when people are still figuring out who you really are?